Leaves of Grass is a poetry collection by the American poet Walt Whitman (1819–1892). Although the first edition was published in 1855, Whitman spent most of his professional life writing and re-writing Leaves of Grass, revising it multiple times until his death. This resulted in vastly different editions over four decades—the first, a small book of twelve poems and the last, a compilation of over 400.
The poems of Leaves of Grass are loosely connected, with each representing Whitman’s celebration of his philosophy of life and humanity. This book is notable for its discussion of delight in sensual pleasures during a time when such candid displays were considered immoral. Where much previous poetry, especially English, relied on symbolism, allegory, and meditation on the religious and spiritual, Leaves of Grass (particularly the first edition) exalted the body and the material world. Influenced by Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Transcendentalist movement, itself an offshoot of Romanticism, Whitman’s poetry praises nature and the individual human’s role in it. However, much like Emerson, Whitman does not diminish the role of the mind or the spirit; rather, he elevates the human form and the human mind, deeming both worthy of poetic praise.
With one exception, the poems do not rhyme or follow standard rules for meter and line length. Among the poems in the collection are “Song of Myself“, “I Sing the Body Electric“, and “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking“. Later editions included Whitman’s elegy to the assassinated President Abraham Lincoln, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d“.
Leaves of Grass was highly controversial during its time for its explicit sexual imagery, and Whitman was subject to derision by many contemporary critics. Over time, however, the collection has infiltrated popular culture and been recognized as one of the central works of American poetry.
Leaves of Grass has its genesis in an essay called The Poet by Ralph Waldo Emerson, published in 1844, which expressed the need for the United States to have its own new and unique poet to write about the new country’s virtues and vices. Whitman, reading the essay, consciously set out to answer Emerson’s call as he began working on the first edition of Leaves of Grass. Whitman, however, downplayed Emerson’s influence, stating, “I was simmering, simmering, simmering; Emerson brought me to a boil”.
On May 15, 1855, Whitman registered the title Leaves of Grass with the clerk of the United States District Court, Southern District of New Jersey, and received its copyright. The first edition was published on July 4, 1855, in Brooklyn, at the printing shop of two Scottish immigrants, James and Andrew Rome, whom Whitman had known since the 1840s. The shop was located at Fulton Street (now Cadman Plaza West) and Cranberry Street, now the site of apartment buildings that bear Whitman’s name. Whitman paid for and did much of the typesetting for the first edition himself. The book did not include the author’s name, and instead offered an engraving by Samuel Hollyer depicting Whitman in work clothes and a jaunty hat, arms at his side. Early advertisements for the first edition appealed to “lovers of literary curiosities” as an oddity. Sales on the book were few, but Whitman was not discouraged.
The first edition was very small, collecting only twelve unnamed poems in 95 pages. Whitman once said he intended the book to be small enough to be carried in a pocket. “That would tend to induce people to take me along with them and read me in the open air: I am nearly always successful with the reader in the open air”, he explained. About 800 were printed, though only 200 were bound in its trademark green cloth cover. The only American library known to have purchased a copy of the first edition was in Philadelphia. The poems of the first edition, which were given titles in later issues, were “Song of Myself”, “A Song for Occupations”, “To Think of Time”, “The Sleepers”, “I Sing the Body Electric”, “Faces”, “Song of the Answerer”, “Europe: The 72d and 73d Years of These States”, “A Boston Ballad”, “There Was a Child Went Forth”, “Who Learns My Lesson Complete?”, and “Great Are the Myths”.
Whitman sent a copy of the first edition of Leaves of Grass to Emerson, who had inspired its creation. In a letter to Whitman, Emerson wrote, “I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom America has yet contributed.” He went on, “I am very happy in reading it, as great power makes us happy.”[13